Someone had once asked Abdullah Khan, the author of Patna Blues, which team he rooted for during an India-Pakistan cricket match. The thoughtless query is par for the course for most Muslims in the country. “I was born in a Muslim family, so I’m Muslim; I was born in India, so I am Indian. The two don’t have to be contradictory: I am both Muslim and Indian,” Khan remembers answering.
This is one of the many instances where the author and banker had been made to realise his status as a minority. I meet Khan at an al fresco café a few metres away from an Axis Bank branch in Mumbai where he works in the compliance department. We discuss his debut novel, Patna Blues , published last year, that had taken two laborious decades to finish. It’s the tale of Arif Khan, a young Bihari Muslim who dares to desire a Hindu woman. Running through this love story are strands of caste, discrimination and nationalism. Born in Pandari, a village near Motihari in Bihar, the author studied in an Urdu-medium school before encountering English at the age of seven. But he was so bewitched by the language that he took it upon himself to write a novel in English. Excerpts from an interview:
When did you first encounter stories?
I was always hungry for stories. If an aunt would visit, the first thing I would ask is if she knew any stories. If they didn’t have anything ready, they’d make something up with Sheikh Chilli, a fictional character who was a mischief-maker. When I was seven or eight, my father gifted me a Hindi Bal Bharti . I thought it was a text for the next academic year, but then he explained it was a book of stories.
What sparked the desire to become a writer?
I was helping my brother with an English assignment and I came across an excerpt from George Orwell’s Animal Farm . I started thinking that since such a great writer was born in my home town, I must follow in his footsteps. I must have been 21 then: I felt a great urge to be a writer.
How did Patna Blues happen?
It was the day Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things won the Booker Prize in 1997. The same day, I purchased a fancy spiral-bound notebook and a fountain pen. The first chapter was mostly inspired by Amit Chaudhuri’s writing style (chuckles). I was able to finish five to six chapters quickly. I got it typed for ₹25 per page and sent it to Mary Mount, an editor at Picador, by registered post, for ₹90. She wrote back saying, “You have fire in your writing, but it’s not ready for publication and you should work hard.”
Why did Patna Blues take so long to reach the bookshelves?
I stopped writing after getting a job in Bank of Baroda. After my wedding in 2002, my wife was dusting the house one day and she found my [manuscript] and the newspaper cuttings of old articles. And she almost blackmailed me to continue. I used to write long-hand with pen and paper and she would type it out. I then wrote to literary agent and author Noah Lukeman, who wrote back and told me about Joseph Conrad who didn’t know English till the age of 20. Lukeman said only those people are published who work hard and persevere. It was 2005 and I kept rewriting the first few chapters — I rewrote it 200 times. I would finish writing, then I would read something by a big writer and feel low. In 2009, I finished the first draft of the book. I sent it to [literary agent] Kanishka Gupta. The feedback I got was devastating. Finally, I signed a contract with Juggernaut in 2016. The book was published in September 2018.
There’s now news of Patna Blues being adapted into a web series...
A big Bollywood director called to tell me that he loved the book and wanted to make a web series for an international streaming platform. It’s in the works. The contract is such that I can’t talk about the details of the project — it’s under consideration.
You’ve also written for television and the big screen. How did that happen?
I’ve always been interested in films and I’ve also tried to get into acting — tried to become a hero when I was in college. In 2015-16, a well-known author posted on Facebook about a Channel V project, which was planning to adapt classics for Indian television — Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, etc. Mine was called Rehaan meets Jamila based on Romeo and Juliet. They liked three stories, one of which was mine. I started staying in touch with producers and directors. In a stroke of bad luck, the channel head left and the project was scrapped. Now, people get in touch with me. Earlier, I used to chase them.
What have you worked on so far?
I wrote a project for Shashanka Ghosh (director of Veere Di Wedding ); I’ve worked on a spy thriller for Ekta Kapoor, but nothing worked out in the end. I wrote the story for the movie Viraam (2017), which my brother, Ziaullah Khan, directed. It was released in 400 to 500 theatres, but didn’t do very well.
What are you currently working on?
Right now, I’m working on a web series about an American ex-commando who’s half-Scottish and half-Indian. He falls in love with a Bihari journalist when she lands up in Goa. There are two-three other projects that are under consideration. And I’m working on my next book, Aslam, Orwell and a Porn Star. It’s about a man who was born in the same room as George Orwell in Motihari. But people are already objecting to the title.
I’m not really sure. There have been so many films made on courtesans, they’re human beings. I’m writing about their human side. I’m not writing pornography (laughs). It’s the truth of life, and they exist.